Rothko Chapel is a place of retreat, an interfaith space of worship in Houston, Texas. It was constructed around paintings by the abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, arranged in an irregular octagon that forms the internal walls. Morton Feldman, a friend of Rothko, was asked by the initiators and benefactors John and Dominique de Menil to compose a piece of music for this space. Feldman named his work after the building because he wanted to use it to extend and reinforce the spatial effect of the large paintings musically. A solo viola runs through this sonic work, as in other Feldman pieces the choir do not sing lyrics but vocalizations that combine astonishingly well with the sound of the vibraphone as if they both originate from the same source. The sung progressions produce what Feldman’s teacher Stefan Wolpe once called “standing music” – a music that attempts to liberate itself from the forced progress of time.
Igor Stravinsky’s only work for the viola introduces Feldman’s viola-led oratorio: the elegy in which a mourning hymn frames a central fugue section as in baroque memorial music. Rothko Chapel is followed by one of the late works by John Cage, a piece made up entirely of sonic motion.